About a month ago, a friend recommended I check out Andrew Tisher and Steve Nelson's improvised podcast Bubble Boys, which features a slew of local improvisors working within the confines of a really silly conceit.
Bubble Boys pays tribute to the style of old-timey radio programming, telling the tale of two renegade inventors who, after inventing a shoddy voice-changing gum, go on the run from the law. The show chronicles their misadventures and the many ridiculous characters they encounter as they flee Westward across the country.
I spoke with Steve and Andrew about the show, which recently wrapped up its first season, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Click here to subscribe to the show on iTunes.
The Steamroller: While comedy podcasts are a dime a dozen these days, most rely on a more conversational, talk-oriented format. What inspired the concept for a story/joke-driven show like Bubble Boys?
Steve Nelson: I had been doing a podcast called the Groh Show with Daniel Strauss and Danny Groh which I really liked, but it was Strauss's brainchild. I got to thinking what I would like to do if I could pick the format. I like narratives and story telling radio shows on NPR like Joe Frank, Prairie Home Companion, and Radiolab so I brought the idea of an old timey radio serial to Tisher who I'd been wanting to work with.
Andrew Tisher: Steve and I had talked about collaborating and I was immediately excited about the idea of a radio serial because I had been intrigued by radio-style comedy ever since high school when my father had introduced me to his Firesign Theatre records. If you aren't familiar with them, they're this comedy troupe that began by doing improvisational pieces on the radio in Los Angeles in the '60s and then developed into releasing these incredible comedy albums. They aren't like anything else, comedic radio plays released on LPs, and in a way there's nothing I love more than those records.
TS: You use a fair amount of sound effects and rapid-fire editing, what's the production process like for each episode?
Steve: We record probably 2-3 hours per episode, doing 2-3 takes per scene. After the recording Tisher and I sit down with Tim our producer, director, and foley magician and do a rough edit, picking which takes and jokes we like and splicing them together, which takes about 2-3 hours. After that Tim puts in all the sounds, scores the transitions, and fixes levels. I don't know how long that can take. Another three hours I'd guess? So around 7-10 hours per episode.
Tisher: A very exciting thing about doing a show like this is how much atmosphere and production value can be added simply through sound effects and editing. Of course, in an improv show, you can claim you are on a train or around a campfire. But to really have the sound of the rails clacking underneath the dialogue, or the actual sound of an owl in the distance can make things immediately very evocative. There's stuff Tim's done where I immediately get a very vivid mental image of where the characters are even though I was present in his beige basement when it was recorded.
TS: What are the differences between improvising onstage in front of an audience and performing in the studio when recording the show? Has one taught you to appreciate the other in any way?
Steve: Doing the show has definitely taught me to appreciate an audience because they kind of subtly guide you with their reactions. In the studio you're kind of flying blind. But as the episodes progressed I think we got more confident in our characters and with what the set up called for- changing our voices, describing physical things, putting a lot of energy into our voices. The great thing about doing the show was that we were improvising within an outline with established characters and had multiple takes. We could try a lot of different stuff, go all out for some dumb jokes, and if they didn't work it didn't matter. No one would hear them.
Tisher: It can definitely be hard to find your way without an audience around to let you know if they're digging it. Of course, you still have the other people in the room that you are playing with and you can tell from their reactions if they're enjoying doing the scene or not. For me one of the most surprising lessons was how it was possible to do a scene that felt like a real miserable grind and then listen to it a week later while editing and think, "Oh! This isn't bad at all!" I think it's helped me be easier on myself, mostly. The dark side is that listening to hours of tape of your own improv can definitely reveal some bad habits. It turns out I do a lot of replying to people with the phrase, "Oh, wow."
Steve: I constantly say "That's right."
TS: Do you have any favorite moments from the show that didn't make the cut?
Steve: There was this really amazing song that Mike Brunlieb, Scott Nelson, and Bill Boehler did for the Moonshine episode. Scott was improvising this beautiful like, spiritual, and Brunlieb was doing back up and Bill was on the banjo. They did like a whole song 2 and a half minutes of it. Magical. But then we found out we weren't recording. There was also a lot of great dirty stuff that we cut out in every episode.
Tisher: I also think of the Moonshiners episode because that one was the most free-form of all the episodes we recorded. We really did just sit on the ground and tell insane stories for about two hours and there was no way to use all of it. There's probably a whole alternate-universe cut of that episode in the discard pile.
TS: Season 1 just recently came to a close. Do you have plans for the future of the show?
Steve: We're planning on a second season that takes place ten years later in 1943. Sven and Henry cross-dress and work in a factory, get drafted and go to boot camp, head over seas to fight the Germans, break out Japanese Americans from internment camps etc. The ideas are still coming together but we hope to start working on it in the fall.